Abstract:

Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has juxtaposed its Art for a Nation exhibit of early 20th century paintings created by the so-called Group of Seven with a display of contemporary work by the graffiti artists Latino Crew. The exhibits are part of the AGO’s Oh!Canada Project.

Full Text:

The city authorities show no appreciation for Latino Crew’s artistic expression. Almost as soon as the Toronto street gang decorates a public building with graffiti, work crews paint right over it. But the youths’ handiwork has gained a new legitimacy in one of Canada’s oldest and most conservative art institutions. Their illicit urban graphics form part of the Oh!Canada Project, a huge interactive art event now under way at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. And, for added impact, Latino Crew’s irreverent graffiti are installed not far from the stunningly beautiful paintings in Art for a Nation, the 75th anniversary retrospective of the Group of Seven, the heart of the Oh!Canada Project. The provocation is deliberate. Gallery curators say they want to jolt visitors out of their complacency about the Group of Seven, Canadian art and, perhaps, even Canada. “In their day, the Group of Seven were radical,” says Cathy Jonasson, co-ordinator of the Oh!-Canada Project.

Visions-of-Canada-1

“Now, when you say, ‘Group of Seven,’ people say,’Yeah, we know who they are but we’ve been there, seen that.'”

In fact, most Canadians have not seen these Group of Seven paintings-many of the 177 works in Art for a Nation, which has already appeared in Ottawa and travels to Vancouver and Montreal later this year, are privately owned and have not been shown for 75 years. Oh!Canada is a homecoming celebration for the legendary artists. Their works are displayed almost as they were in their original eight exhibits at what was called the Toronto Art Gallery in the 1920s-right down to the deeply colored walls and old-fashioned mouldings. But the nostalgia ends as viewers leave the Group of Seven galleries. What follows is the traditionally staid ago’s largest and most innovative show ever. A giant 1935 sculpture of a hockey goalie, by Toronto artist Frances Loring, leads to a series of exhibitions that examine-and challenge-notions about the land and national identity that were central to the Group of Seven’s art. The explorations range from the 1930s to the present, from the conventional to the cheeky.

Some of the paintings are from the AGO’s permanent collection and were created by prominent Canadian artists, including William Kurelek, Jack Chambers and Joyce Wieland. But Oh!Canada also includes a photo documentary by Montreal photojournalist Serge Clement of the period leading up to last October’s referendum. These paintings from AGO belongs to “reality style”, that honestly describe things familiar to normal life (topics like technology: favorite mobiles, most-loved operation system, boost in Apple’s sale …, war: Iraq war, , electronics: home improvement & cleaning tools, spin mop reviews, gardening,…) And the gallery also invited schoolchildren and six community groups-including Latino Crew-to create and display their own visions of Canada.

Oh!Canada offers numerous interactive exhibits, a rarity for an art institution. Visitors are invited to log on to the AGO’s new Web site, send a fax or make a video for Bravo!, the cable arts channel. Those less technologically inclined can write their thoughts in chalk on a giant blackboard on which one visitor has scribbled Pierre Berton’s famous quip that “a Canadian is somebody who knows how to make love in a canoe.

No longer does it mean finding solace in the land, according to five environmentalist artists from Hamilton known as The Hammer Collective. In the group’s disturbing installation, titled The Post-Industrial Family Takes a Bath in Lake Ontario, long lists of toxic pollutants are mounted on a chain-link fence in front of photos depicting a nightmarish industrial wasteland dominated by smokestacks. “The landscape that the Group of Seven saw was pristine, almost perfect,” says Scott Marsden, curator of the installation. “That is not how it is, especially in Steel Town, surrounded by industry, the air is stinky and the water is polluted.” A more romantic vision is offered in paintings by the Lok Tok Art Studio. Using traditional Chinese brushwork on rice paper, the father-and-son team from Toronto gives cliched scenes of the Rockies and Niagara Falls a startling freshness.

But the Group of Seven is a tough act to follow, and not all the responses in Oh!Canada are up to the challenge. A project by students at The Jones Avenue Adult New Canadian Centre-who decorated wooden palettes with colorful symbols-offers little insight. And a few creators, including some First Nations artists from the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont., were not even sure they could relate to the Group of Seven. “Two of our artists said, ‘This is crazy, here were white men going up north to capture the spirit of the land-they didn’t even know what it was all about,’ ” says Tom Hill, curator of the group’s low-key installation symbolizing an Iroquois ritual of oneness with the land.

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But the AGO does deliver on its promise of “fun” in the Oh!Canada Project. And the public-both at the gallery and over the Internet-has displayed considerable interest in the interactive exhibit’s first Question of the Week: “How would you describe your Canada?” A gallery spokesman reports that roughly 4,000 people have visited the Web site in the first 10 days, with 100 of them responding to the question. It appears that the novelty of Oh!Canada may succeed in drawing a new audience to the gallery. Now maybe the AGO could even dare to pose the question: “What do you think of the paintings?

>>> View more: Maybe it would be best if we lost this battle

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet and critic living in Charleston, South Carolina. He has written for Crisis, the American Journalism Review, and the Washington Post.

Toni Morrison pursues stylistic perfection in her tour de force on family, genealogy, hate, and love.

LOVE

Toni Morrison

New York: Knopf, 2003

202 pp., $23.95

“Style is everything,” literary master Gustav Flaubert is frequently paraphrased as having said. In a famous series of letters to a mistress, Louise Colet, the great novelist articulated his dreams of style. “I envision a style: a style that would be beautiful, that someone will invent some day, ten years or ten centuries from now, one that would be rhythmic as verse, precise as the language of the sciences, undulant, deep-voiced as a cello, tipped with flame.” “Prose was born yesterday: you have to keep that in mind. Verse is the form par excellence of ancient literatures. All possible prosodic variations have been discovered; but that is far from being the case with prose.” “A good sentence should be like a good line of poetry–unchangeable, just as rhythmic, just as sonorous.” Again and again these letters–written during the composition of Madame Bovary–emphasize a chiseled ideal.

the-bluest-eye

It isn’t pretentious to begin an essay on Toni Morrison’s Love by invoking the mastery of Flaubert. A Nobel laureate and one of the world’s major novelists, Morrison in book after book has proven that she is a preeminent stylist. From The Bluest Eye (1970) to Tar Baby (1981) to her last published novel, Love (2003), her readership has become accustomed to highly sculptured novels, not only in terms of the overall design but sentence for sentence, word for word. She writes the most thought-out prose in contemporary American letters.

A gulf of difference separates a nineteenth-century Frenchman and a living African-American feminist author. The language barrier makes it difficult to compare their styles; while both writers are attuned to “poetry,” their definitions of the poetic are influenced by their times, culture, and background. But this much they share–to a degree highly uncommon in a novelist (somewhat more common in short story writers) their prose achieves a diamond-like preciseness. The length of a novel ordinarily precludes a degree of grace. For Morrison, like Flaubert, each sentence is a highly informational composition intended to click into place and alignment beside previous sentences. Each sentence is a miniature work of art in itself.

Continuing the analogy with Flaubert, Morrison’s later works have drawn criticisms similar to those levied against Bouvard and Pecuchet. The skeptical analyses reached a pinnacle with the unusually ambivalent reaction to her immediately preceding novel, Paradise. In some minds, the novel fulfilled a negative tendency in Morrison’s writing; Paradise seemed Morrison’s own “book about nothing,” an exercise in free-floating themes and archetypal scenarios, lacking character, plot, or fixed center.

Worse, Paradise was the first book Toni Morrison published after winning the Nobel Prize. The critics had their knives sharpened: had the author fallen victim to Flaubertian ambitions? The common word used by disapproving critics was obscurantism. Paradise isn’t the book under discussion in this essay; Love is. But Love has also provoked some perplexed, or hostile, responses. I don’t believe that “obscurantism” does justice to Love. Morrison is testing the capacity of her talent, of her stylistic gift. This has, in my opinion, been the case with all her novels, before and after the Nobel Prize. While some of her books may have been more successful than others, her work is never self-indulgent.

A Faulknerian family melodrama

Defending herself against a hostile review, Morrison once commented, “People’s anticipation now more than ever for linear, chronological stories is intense because that’s the way narrative is revealed in TV and movies.” Her point should be well taken, no less so this time around.

Love has a syncopated sense of story structure and a plethora of characters of whom to keep track. The characters are introduced incrementally; their miniature stories blur in and out of focus. Love is a family drama: but who is related to who? The reader eventually finds that the principal characters, whether by marriage, birth, or friendship, led lives that revolved around the expectations of a Howard Hughes–like motel and resort magnate, Bill Cosey.

No surprise that when the narrative opens, Bill Cosey is already dead. No surprise that his survivors pathologically hate each other, and hate as well as adore the patriarch’s memory. No surprise that Cosey was an incarnate Zeus, difficult to like much less love, a manipulator, possibly a sex abuser. Love’s scenario is archetypal, mythic. The plot is a clothes hanger–used in the same way that Flaubert used a borrowed story to write The Temptations of St. Anthony. The hanger is garbed with penetrating resonances, assonances, and ideas. The real story is in the beauty of the telling.

 toni_morrison

The meaning is inseparable from artful writing of passages such as this:

“Our weather is soft, mostly, with peculiar light. Pale mornings fade into white noons, then by three o’clock the colors are savage enough to scare you – for better imagination, we can’t take a clear look within the range of 100 yards, even using the best rangefinder . Jade and sapphire waves fight each other, kicking up enough foam to wash sheets in. An evening sky behaves as though it’s from some other planet–one without rules, where the sun can be plum purple if it wants to and clouds can be red as poppies. Our shore is like sugar which is what the Spaniards thought of when they first saw it. Sucre, they called it, a name local whites tore up for all time into Sooker.”

Or metaphorical epigrams such as: “The two of us were like the back of a clock. Mr. Cosey was its face telling you the time was now.” Similar examples could be drawn from Love’s pages at random.

The intricate Cosey narrative spotlights three women: Heed, Cosey’s second wife; his daughter-in-law May; and his granddaughter Christine. There is also L., an ethereal presence. L. narrates large chunks of the novel in the first person, the voice of longing and nostalgia. And there is the latest addition, Junior–not a relative but a recently employed servant at the decaying Cosey estate. Least well drawn is Celestial, Cosey’s secret mistress.

The late, great Bill Cosey rose to renown and fortune in the 1940s. He was a rarity in his time–an influential black man. In the 1950s, integration sapped his power base. By the time he died, he was broken spiritually and financially set back, the victim of hubris as well as racism. Cosey is the archetypal “fallen man”–talented, charismatic, but spiritually impure. In his lascivious self-absorption he wed his second wife, Heed, when she was an eleven-year-old child. Heed was also his granddaughter Christine’s best friend.

Rather predictably for a story involving a powerful man and his women, a subplot involves Cosey’s lost will. To whom did he leave his possessions? For whom did he really care? But the way the story is told is the key, keeping the plot devices grandiose rather than cliched. Love has magic and a mythic structure that gradually becomes apparent.

In the early pages, Heed, who is now an elderly widow, hires Junior under false pretenses. Heed wants an ear, an amanuensis. Junior will listen to the Cosey story: hopefully, Junior will write it down. Perhaps consciously, perhaps not, Morrison has mirrored the opening of Absalom, Absalom–the William Faulkner novel in which Rosa Coldfield encourages young Quentin Compson to listen to her stories of ghosts of the past. The device opens the floodgates of history; at the same time, Absalom, Absalom is high Faulknerian melodrama. Similarly, in Love Morrison connects social history with intergenerational conflict. The plot is over-the-top and operatic. The emphasis upon family and memory is Faulknerian–but in Morrison’s hands the story is told with Flaubert’s sense of calculation.

Critical views

A point of view opposing my good opinion can be found in Jonathan Yardley’s October 26 review in the Washington Post.

“Love is a clotted, tedious, uninviting novel … is capable of wit, tenderness and subtlety, but now she seems determined to make Major Statements rather than simply tell stories in which character and plot carry the thematic messages. The result, in Love–the very title of which has Major Statement written all over it–is not so much a work of fiction as an oration. Its characters exist not as discrete individuals but as embodiments of ideas, experiences, points on the spectrum of black experience. They engage neither one’s interest nor one’s sympathy.”

Yardley reiterates,

“This is not so much a novel as a work of exposition. … The expository passages in Love seem substitutes for narrative and character development that Morrison never manages to get off the ground. … No matter what literary avant garde would have us believe otherwise, themes must emerge naturally out of narrative and character rather than out of exposition; the novelist must show, not tell. Of course there are exceptions … but [in the particular case of Love] the result is something cluttered with ideas but devoid of feeling.”

Whereas I found mythology and poetry in Love, Yardley found an absence of feeling and dry passages. Yardley, I suspect, isn’t a terrific fan of Flaubert’s plotless, largely characterless Bouvard and Pecuchet. Or is it one of the exceptions? What about Virginia Woolf’s prose poetry masterpiece, To the Lighthouse?

Exposition, used pejoratively, suggests writing that leaves no strong sensory or emotional impression. It is hard to believe that a sensitive reader will not respond emotionally to the fine writing. Is this sentence exposition? “The ocean is my man now. He knows when to rear and hump his back, when to be quiet and simply watch a woman. He can be devious, but he’s not a false-hearted man. His soul is deep down there and suffering. I pay attention and know all about him. That kind of understanding can only come from practice, and I had a lot of that with Mr. Cosey.” Does this qualify as lifeless exposition? “Junior slid the tail of a fine-tooth comb through Heed’s hair, then filled each silver valley with a thick stream of Velvet Tress. She had lubricated each parting with Vaseline to take down the pain of its lye. Then she tipped Heed’s head gently–to and fro …” Was To the Lighthouse an expository wreck?

Love has flaws that stand in high relief, given its outstanding merits. The style is a whirlwind, leaving the reader breathless, but occasionally one awakes from the magic to discover that the plot itself is a little unbelievable. Cosey’s marriage to an eleven-year-old: wouldn’t this have garnered the attention of the police? Moreover, it is fairly late in the novel that the reader realizes that in certain scenes Christine and Heed were only eleven and twelve years old. They did not strike the reader as that young; neither convincingly reacted as children would–the subtleties of childhood are missing. Like others in Love, this plot stratagem has poetic suggestiveness, but on the level of simple credibility it pushes the envelope.

A liturgical performance

Yardley touches upon a related weakness when he calls the book an oration. Due to the refinement of the style, the stormy-weather blur of the language, the reader feels distanced from the events described. There are characters, places, dialogue, but the dominant voice remains that of Morrison herself. Morrison steals into the minds of these various characters, but as Yardley implies, there is never the sense often provided in a straightforward, realistic novel that the characters have spoken for themselves. This does not make Heed, May, Christine, and Cosey chess pieces; a better analogy would be voices in a choir. The culminative effect resembles a Passion play or, as I have written, a myth–a liturgical performance.

Love will not stand beside Morrison’s major works, but the novel is an accomplishment. Its complexities will continue to be argued over and analyzed. When the dust has settled, Love’s gem will shine brighter. I am especially convinced of this when I imagine the reviews the book might have received if it had been a first novel.

I don’t think there would have been cries that Love was too ambitious, dull, or pretentious. Most critics would have been grateful that it is still possible for artists to take risks, risks that might broaden the critical conception of literature. I don’t think many would have damned the novel for its contrivances; the critics would have argued over their success or failure, but more often than not in the context of commenting on Morrison’s unusual talent. I particularly don’t think anyone would have accused her of trying too hard to make major pronouncements. Instead, there would have been appreciation for an artist committed to literature, not entertainment.

Rather than finding the title Love pretentious–a bald statement of a theme–some might have considered why the novel, after all, is called Love. There is more ambiguity therein than at first glance. Love is less an obnoxious than a curious title. The slim novel contains so much frustration, as much hate as love, or perhaps only sick love. We see sexuality, carnality, familial envy, sufferance, and penitence; but how much love? This is another point of debate that awaits Love’s future critics.

Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo

 

–> Related news: The Art of Desire

Meet Leang Seckon, one of Cambodia’s foremost contemporary artists. His first European solo exhibition, The Heavy Skirt , opened this spring at London’s Rossi & Rossi gallery–to great acclaim. It consists of twenty pieces: collages, paintings, patchworks, and three-dimensional figures that cover a range of recent Cambodian history. Born amid U.S. bombings and raised during the Khmer Rouge terror, Seckon dedicates this exhibit to his mother.

“The Heavy Skirt refers to the life of my mom,” he explains. “When I was a child in her stomach, she was wearing the skirt. The skirt covered her stomach and covered me.”

When he was born, Leang says, his family–and the country–had “a heavy life.” His childhood home had been thickly carpet-bombed in Nixon’s secret war against the nation, an image recounted in the painting “Flicking Skirt”: His mother is out with him and his brother in the fields, and she hears planes coming.

“Bombs came from the sky, and fell around the house. She and my brother were in the bunker. She tried to get me but could not, so she just left me alone outside of the bunker,” Leang says. So there he is, alone in the middle of the painting, surviving blacklace destruction and watching birds escape to safety.

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“The sound from the airplane, the sound from the car, the sound from the bomb or the gun, I become very shocked and scared,” he says, meaning now. These days, when cars backfire, or planes swoop too low, or guns or bombs go off and they still do, in Cambodia–the artist gets nervous. “This is left over from that time,” he explains.

His subject matter includes the brief period of Cambodian independence, and the cultural production that emerged; U.S. and Vietnamese military activity in the early 1970s; the oppressive Pol Pot years; the subsequent Vietnamese occupation; the plays for power over Cambodia. In “The Bloody Shirt,” Leang paints a giant military man on a five-by-four-foot canvas decorated with scraps of cloth, representing medals from all the different armies that have invaded his country.

His depiction of the Khmer Rouge is haunting, as he transforms the photographic documentation of its victims into a collage. “People were like mummies,” he says, comparing them to the “living dead.” During this period, says Leang, “I’m very scared, and cry. I’m very shocked.”

L eang was born into the deep poverty of the Prey Veng province in the southeast corner of the country. His mother’s heavy skirt was old and quilted with patches; the family’s subsistence-level earnings from the rice farm where the artist worked as a buffalo boy for ten years left no money to replace clothing.

Leang honed his skills at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts. He took two bachelor’s degrees in place of the BFA and MFA he might have pursued were higher education–and art appreciation–in his native land not still rebuilding after the Khmer Rouge years. After finishing school in 2002, he began showing in emerging galleries throughout Phnom Penh, as well as in Thailand, Japan, and Hong Kong. Perhaps even more impressive, at least back home, his work has been endorsed by two kings: Norodom Sihamoni in 2008 and his father, Norodom Sihanouk, four years earlier.

Leang’s work renders the terrifying beautiful: matted lush surfaces, uneven, scratchy lines, images pulled from the garbage, from ads, from other artists, from the media. Objects are worked into the thick paint: pockets, notebooks, bits of thread, photocopies, fabrics.

He’s had a fairly straight rise to the top, considering that he and his contemporaries have created a Cambodian art community almost from scratch.

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Leang calls himself a “freedom artist,” yet freedom of expression–in a country where journalists are regularly threatened and sometimes killed for reporting on governmental activity, and where the number of arrests of human rights activists rose by about 70 percent last year–is hard to come by.

“My art is respect,” he says. “I don’t want my artwork to attack. I don’t want any people–any people –hurt by me,” he emphasizes. But by the same token, he wants to “let people know that they did something wrong.” As he puts it: “I just try to make you understand that what you did to me is painful.

L eang’s work also tackles environmental issues. The Rubbish Project, from June 2006, is an ongoing collaboration with cultural worker Fleur Smith. Recent events have included dance performances and a large-scale trash fashion show, with volunteer models from the art, social justice, ex-pat, and local communities. Clothing, patterned after traditional wear and modern street fashion, featured tea-bag tag flowerets, discarded plastic flounce, and fanciful capes–all in keeping with the excessively fancy Khmer look, except made from garbage.

In 2008, the group installed a massive Naga on the Siem Reap River for World Water Day. The majestic serpent deity, composed of found plastic baggies, was for a time the protectorate of the city’s waterway, and earned the praise of the king.

“Seckon has purposely tried to expand public understanding of the artist’s role through both his individual practice as a Freedom Artist and through the communal and environmental focus of the Rubbish Project,” independent curator and arts writer Erin Gleeson explains.

Leang’s studio sits on Boeung Kak, the capital city’s largest remaining natural lake. It is being filled to make way for a residential and shopping district, a project headed by a close friend of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Sand is being dredged daily from a spot in front of the Royal Palace on the Mekong and piped over to an area just across the bay from the artist’s back deck. The project violates several laws, as do the evictions that result. Hundreds have been forced to move already, and thousands more will join them in the coming months and years.

Leang Seckon is among them.

“The company bought the lake, and now they are destroying the lake,” he says. “I’m not happy at all, because I spent eight years on this lake to get energy for my artwork.”

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Such events–indeed, the entire history of Cambodia–cannot be undone. Not the civil wars, not poverty, not genocide. Not border disputes, beatings, murder, corruption, bombings, or landmines.

“History is treachery,” Leang says. “It is already done. But I want to show the people what happened in past time, and they can understand more deeply about the present in art.”

Anne Elizabeth Moore teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Moore, Anne Elizabeth

 

–> See more about art: Jane Lund

As a primary teacher, I often engage students in author studies during my reading and writing instruction. Actually, playing guitars and reading book are two of my biggest interest in life. Every weekend, I go to the Public Library in Boston to read my favorite books, then wandering at Boston School of Guitar (a very famous guitar shop in Boston) to check the best acoustic guitars there. Come back to our reading & writing class, we always enjoy the language of Denise Fleming. We notice the way Patricia Polacco opens her stories in ways that make us want to turn the page and read on. And we enjoy Doreen Cronin’s interesting diary format as a way to transmit information in a fun and different manner in her stories about spiders, worms, and flies. Students study these books as readers, responding in their journals by making connections, telling what they think and feel, asking questions, and drawing inferences. Students also study these authors as writers, trying to emulate the patterns, words, characters, and format in their own stories, nonfiction pieces, and poetry.

Last fall, we were about to embark on another author study when I decided to shift gears and focus our efforts, instead, on an illustrator. I pored through my books, trying to find an illustrator who could offer students engaging opportunities to respond. I wanted to find an illustrator who would inspire visual, oral, written, and dramatic response. I chose Betsy Lewin.

Beginning the Study

We began with an exploration of sorts. I put several of Lewin’s books in a marked basket and let students pair off to read. They traded books and took notes about what they noticed. After a while we came together, and I announced that we were going to study a famous illustrator, Betsy Lewin.

I asked, “At first glance, what did you think about the pictures in these books?”

Immediately, students responded, “They are funny.”

“What might that tell us about Betsy Lewin?”

Aiden responded, “She has a good sense of humor.”

Anna added, “I think she likes animals too. She draws lots of animals.”

I recorded on a chart the students’ first thoughts about Betsy Lewin. My hope was that we would continue to add to it as we read and studied a few of her books.

Click, Clack, Moo

Immediately students were drawn to Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, written by Doreen Cronin, because of the cover art. They saw the three cows huddled around a typewriter with a hen and a goose looking on. “What do you think of the illustration?” I asked.

“I love that it is really close up,” said Eden.

“It looks like cartoon characters,” added Brian.

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We began reading, and immediately students noticed how important the illustrations were in telling the story. Lewin’s artwork complements Cronin’s text beautifully, adding to the story in a way authors can only dream about.

There were a few key pages that made students laugh out loud. The first was a close-up picture of the cow’s rear end. The hen is underneath the cow, and Farmer Brown appears very small in the picture as he reads the note left by the cows. This page prompted our first discussion and written response about foreground and background. How does the illustrator make the cow appear to be up close, and how does she make Farmer Brown appear far away? Also, what does Lewin do to make us laugh?

Kaden wrote:

   The book illustrator made the book
   really funny because she did a lot
   of close-ups like when the cow's
   butt was really big and Farmer
   Brown was really small and it was
   funny. The cow's butt was right in
   your face. That made me laugh.
   Farmer Brown was small because
   he was far away. He was in the
   background.

Another page that got a lot of notice from students and prompted much talk and writing was the page in which one of the cow’s notes to Farmer Brown was posted: “Sorry. We’re closed. No milk today.” Lewin does a superb job of showing the note and also showing Farmer Brown’s reaction while reading it. Instead of Farmer Brown blocking the note as he reads it, students see his reaction through his silhouette. Students infer that he is MAD!

Alden wrote:

   I love how she has shown that
   Farmer Brown was furious, in the
   shadow, so we can see the note. And
   I like how she did not show his face,
   but we knew he was mad because
   he had his fist in the air and his hair
   was spiked up!

Later we discussed the colors Lewin uses throughout the book. Avery wrote, “I love the way the illustrator used the colors like when it was nighttime, instead of black, she used green.”

Continued conversation heated up when we came to the page where Cronin writes, “Duck was a neutral party, so he brought the ultimatum to the cows.” Lewin’s illustration is sheer genius. Maddie suggested in her reading journal, “The path that the Duck walked on seemed long. The cows had to wait.” Maddie drew a picture of the duck carrying the note down a winding path with the cow saying, “I’m waiting.” We stopped to contemplate Lewin’s choice to make the path so long.

“Why does she do this, do you think?” I asked.

“Because it makes you wonder what the note is going to say as Duck walks up the long path. I bet the cows were nervous, wondering too,” said Avery.

art-is-amazing

Students also commented on the elements of foreground and background in this picture. Kira wrote, “I learned how to make stuff look FAR AWAY.” She drew her own picture to show the winding path and the barn very small at the top of the page.

As we neared the end of the story, students loved how the text and the illustrations shift. With the cows’ demand granted, now Duck has a request of his own: “Dear Farmer Brown, The pond is quite boring. We’d like a diving board. Sincerely, The Ducks.”

The book ends with an illustration of Duck diving off a diving board into a pond, with no text. Clearly, students were able to infer what happened. Kira responded, “I notice that the ducks got the diving board because I saw a diving board and the duck underwater.”

Furthering the Study

We moved next to reading Giggle, Giggle, Quack, another book written by Doreen Cronin. Kaden immediately started our conversation with, “I like the way Betsy Lewin makes the pictures look cartoony.” We enjoyed the story with lots of laughing, continued inferring, and wonderful responses.

Last, we read Lewin’s So, What’s It Like to Be a Cat? written by one of my favorite authors and poets, Karla Kuskin. Students loved this book! Most children admire cats and can relate to the unique character of each feline. Lewin brings the cats alive with her fanciful illustrations. First we studied Lewin’s cat shapes and became cats ourselves. We were cats curling up for a nap, cats prowling after a mouse, cats jumping, and cats slinking in and out of chair legs. Students felt these shapes as they moved.

Next we studied the colors Lewin uses, as well as her use of shadow. She does not paint with ordinary cat colors. She uses shades of blues and purples. Students noticed there is a dark blue behind a cat that seems like it is hunting and purple and yellow on the page where the cats are dancing. My students painted watercolors of their own cats, looking to Lewin for inspiration.

Students became keenly interested in other books about cats, including poetry and fiction, but mostly nonfiction books. They wanted to learn about cats, and several students carried this over into writing workshop, where they wrote books about cats and poetry too.

Heightening Artistic Awareness

Besides turning to other books on these topics out of heightened interest, students began to notice the elements of art in other books, like the use of shadow and color, as well as foreground and background techniques. Marina quickly came to me during Read to Self time, holding Dragon’s Fat Cat by Dav Pilkey (1995). She was so excited to show how Pilkey uses shadow in his pictures too. We discussed his purpose for using shadow on this particular page. In addition, students came to me with books to show how an artist uses foreground and background techniques in illustrations. One time, months after our Lewin study, Katelyn pointed to the back cover of Shoeless Joe and Black Betsy by Phil Bildner, illustrated by C. F. Payne (2002). She said, “Hey, see how the ball is in the foreground. He made it real big. And the field is in the background. It is kind of small.”

Brian and David were reading Denise Fleming’s books Where Once There Was a Wood (1996) and In the Small, Small Pond (1993). They noticed the change in color as day turns to night and spring turns to winter. “Hey, just like Betsy Lewin used color to show different moods, this author uses color to show it’s going from morning to nighttime and it’s going from spring to winter.”

As I reflect on Lewin’s illustrator study and the two that followed later in the year, it is clear that students learned things they never learned from an author study. They learned elements of art: color and line, the use of shadow and shape, and foreground and background techniques. They learned how the illustrator works with the author to tell the story.

Students were led to other books, titles illustrated by these same artists, as well as books on similar topics and genres. Some students, inspired by Lewin’s humor, were drawn to “funny” books, and we ended up holding a spontaneous weeklong study on humorous books, or “books that make us laugh.” In my 25 years of teaching, I never thought to have students explore our classroom library to find books that make them laugh, then study these books for a week, reading, discussing, and responding through writing and drama. It was one of the most rewarding and fun weeks of my career.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Well, I don’t really think I am an old dog. I am a teacher who likes to do different things each year, pulling from lessons that work and adding fresh ideas to the mix. However, this was something new for me. Yes, over the years I have prompted students to talk about the artwork in books as we read. We have discussed certain elements in the picture books we have shared. But not like this. I never chose an illustrator and took a chunk of time with students to experience the artist’s work and how it helps tell the story in a picture book. Now that I have, I will definitely do it again. After Betsy Lewin … who’s up next?

Sampling Lewin

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. By Doreen Cronin. 2000. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9780689832130). Also available in audio and video editions from Weston Woods. PreS–Gr. 3.

Giggle, Giggle, Quack. By Doreen Cronin. 2002. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9780689845062). Also available in audio and video editions from Weston Woods. PreS–Gr. 3.

So, What’s It Like to Be a Cat? By Karla Kuskin. 2005. 32p. Atheneum, $15.95 (9780689847332); paper, $6.99 (9780689859304). PreS–Gr. 3.

Megan Sloan is a multiage primary teacher in the Snohomish School District in Snohomish, Washington, and the author of Into Writing: The Primary Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop (2009).

At a theoretical level, the level of Plato and Aristotle, politics and aesthetics are linked together with ethics–and much else of course–into a consistent world view. This is all very well, but at ground level things are different. There are clashes. On moving south-east from west London to Kennington Park, near the Oval, my local MP became Simon Hughes, the prominent Liberal Democrat spokesman. He is noted for supporting ethnic minorities in various ways. Given that you welcome or at least accept the reality of pluralism and multi-culturalism here and now, this must surely be an ethically sound, sensible and politically correct idea, albeit an idea quite foreign to the ideal Republic (or closed society as Karl Popper thought) envisaged by Plato.

The high profile of Hughes’s support for such minority groups does sometimes raise questions or eyebrows in local pubs and restaurants about `what has he ever done for’ the indigenous community. Be that as it may, he recently raised his own profile, at least, by focusing on a problem belonging to a central London square which is easily reachable from his constituency being a couple of stops after Big Ben on the number 159 bus route. In so doing Hughes (who lists music and theatre as interests) dramatically introduced an aesthetic dimension to his politics.

As though surfing on a wave of loyalty provoked by her funeral, he suddenly campaigned to put a sculpture of the Queen Mother between Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery. He passionately wanted a Queen Mum statue on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. `Would she be wearing something frilly?’ a female friend asked, thereby envisaging an essentially comic outcome of the proposal. And what age would she be? Her longevity makes the Queen Mother’s image complex and harder to sum up than, say, Lady Di’s in a statue, especially if it were placed in the shadow of the victor of Trafalgar’s huge column with its almost brutally simple message. Few would contest that the Queen Mother was a great, lovely, praiseworthy and wonderful lady; and judging by her arrangements for her own funeral, she was also an excellent organiser who could have taught a thing or two to many a recent minister of transport. But, to put it plainly, she was not only the wrong shape for this particular plinth, she was also in the wrong profession.

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As regards her achievements, including that of popularising the monarchy, what living sculptor could have done them justice? There is a current shortage of reincarnated Rodins and contemporary Canovas. We don’t even have a Francis Chantrey, whose equestrian statue of George IV in Trafalgar Square is rather elegant. Rightly or wrongly, the majority of well-known creative and imaginative sculptors remain sniffy about the possibilities of portraiture as a major art form–with the possible exception of self-portraiture. To have chosen a little-known academic sculptor to attempt the task might have been to plump for an anachronism. On the other hand, the stalwarts of the famous neo-academic YBA group tend to favour direct casting, often from their own bodies–a somewhat impractical method for producing an image of the deceased Queen Mother. Unconventional media such as elephant dung and formaldehyde, dear to the heart of the typical YBA, could be even more curatorially problematic in the open air than they already are under the roofs of museums, galleries and the London residence of their principal patron, Charles Saatchi, where a builder is reported to have melted the Marc Quinn self-portrait in frozen blood by accidentally turning off the electricity.

The statue of a public figure provides an opportunity for aesthetics to join hands with politics. The idea of a Queen Mother memorial in Trafalgar Square failed to catch on. A huge bronze pigeon, upon which the flocks of living pigeons might more appropriately lavish their droppings, might have a better chance, given that tourists tend to select backdrops of the lions or the dolphins for their happy snaps. The affair reminded me of how politicians often seem to get the wrong end of the stick in matters concerning the visual arts.

In Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, the characters’ responses to events such as a controversial sculpture by Epstein in Hyde Park are often symbolic. One can rely on Widmerpool to run true to form. `Who exactly buys art books?’ he once asked of the narrator–who published them. He is too philistine even to imagine such a person.

Would Kenneth Widmerpool, who later became a Labour MP, have fallen into the same trap as Neil Kinnock? When Kinnock was leader of the Labour party in opposition, Melina Mercouri, campaigning for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, mounted a charm offensive on him–and it worked. Kinnock blurted out something like, `I suggested that maybe we could have them half the year and they have them the other half.’ Far from exemplifying the British genius for compromise, and quite apart from the principle issue, this remark perhaps typifies a non-specialist’s ignorance about the practicalities of conservation.

No political party, however, has a monopoly on imperfect behaviour in relation to the visual arts. Harold Wilson told the tale, on television, of how Churchill used his brushes and paints to brighten up the mouse made almost invisible by darkening varnish in Rubens’s `The Lion and the Mouse’ at Chequers. `Would that make it more valuable?’ asked a London taxi-driver to whom I passed on this story. Even if the answer were yes, it would not make the act of the former leader of the Conservative party more aesthetically and conservationally correct. At least his well-intentioned act was reversible, unlike Clementine Churchill’s famous destruction of the portrait of Sir Winston by Graham Sutherland. According to Robert Boothby, the great man recognised and hated the bullying streak which Sutherland had so successfully captured.

It is undeniably more important that our politicians are sound on the defence of the realm than sound on visual arts questions. Fortunately some of them have been sound on both. Jo Grimond, who collected paintings, would have known better than to campaign for a Queen Mum statue in Trafalgar Square. Denis Healey would not have suggested that the Greeks have the Elgin Marbles for half the year. David Eccles, who chaired the British Museum, would not have interfered with a Rubens or destroyed a Sutherland.

How things change! Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), in his angst-stricken life, managed to sell only one painting.

Now the sale of a van Gogh painting becomes an international event, as selling prices soar into the multi-millions of dollar. A museum named for him in Amsterdam shows his work exclusively. In 2005 more than 1,417,000 visitors came to this Van Gogh Museum. A bare 45 miles away, another museum, the KroellerMoeller in Otterloo, proudly shows more of his masterpieces, as do some 250 museums across the globe.

What brought this transformation about? To answer the question, let’s backtrack a little and look at van Gogh’s life, because knowing his background is essential to appreciating van Gogh’s unique appeal.

Fortunately much is known about the life and thought of Vincent van Gogh. Our most intimate knowledge comes from letters he wrote throughout much of his life to his brother, Theo, a successful art dealer in Paris, who supported van Gogh throughout his tempestuous life. He also wrote revealing letters to other family members and to his fellow artists. Public fascination with Vincent van Gogh was piqued when details of his life were recorded in the book “Lust for Life,” written by Irving Stone and made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas (as van Gogh) and Anthony Quinn (as the artist Paul Gaugin).

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The Rural Influence

Vincent van Gogh’s father was a minister in the Brabant region of Belgium, a poor rural province peopled by stolid peasants. Because three of his uncles were involved in the art trade it seemed a given for the young van Gogh to enter that field, as well. But his often erratic manner alienated people, and his employment in the art business came to an end. The ministry had always attracted him, but his foray in that direction proved equally unsuccessful.

In 1880 at the age of 27, Vincent van Gogh decided to become an artist. By doing so he helped change the face of modern art. He had enjoyed drawing since childhood, and now he decided to begin serious art studies in Brussels concentrating on anatomy and perspective. Five years later we find him in Antwerp where he worked extensively with chalk, switching later to pen and ink. These drawings and prints foresaw the kind of swirls, dots and dashes that would characterize his later paintings.

However, it was during this period that he did a painting in oil that was to become one of his best loved works: “The Potato Eaters.” Van Gogh’s connection to and respect for peasant life are evident in the painting, and we clearly sense the close relationship of the peasants to the countryside and the fruit of their labors. Van Gogh spent a number of evenings with the family pictured, in order to arrive at every nuance of presentation. In a letter to Theo he strongly defends the way in which the picture is painted. “He who prefers to see the peasants in their Sunday best may do as he likes. I personally am convinced I get better results by painting them in their roughness than by giving them conventional charm.”

“The Potato Eaters’ is currently on view in a new exhibition Van Gogh and the Colors of Night (until January 2009) at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). A sketch of the “Potato Eaters” appears in the text of his letter to Theo. The theme of MoMA’s exhibit is van Gogh’s handling of night scenes, his fascination with atmosphere, color and the emotional effect of light. In “The Potato Eaters,” an early work from 1885, we already see this fascination — the brilliance of the overhead light reading the scene in all its intensity with sympathy and awe. This painting had not been shown in New York for more than 50 years, but it is still delivering its emotional punch.

New Directions

Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886, moving in with his brother Theo. A new phase of his education began. Now he worked frequently with oil paint. He met and made friends with the early impressionists: Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and George Seurat. He spent two years in Paris where his spiritualism faded under the influence of a freer lifestyle. During this period he was deeply inspired by Japanese prints which had recently become available in France and had become the rage of the French capital. The intricacy of colors, fully experienced for the first time, intoxicated him. “Instead of trying to reproduce what I have in front of my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily so as to express myself more forcefully,” he wrote.

In all his dealings with people his personality proved a big hindrance. He was aware of this failing. In a letter to his brother as early as 1880 he had admitted, “I am a passionate man, capable and likely to do more or less foolish things which I regret. It happens that I speak a little too quickly.” Although Theo understood this and had welcomed his brother to live with him, eventually Theo felt that it was better for them to live their separate lives.

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The Arles Period

Van Gogh left Paris for the warmth and color of Provence and settled in Arles where he lived out the remainder of his life from 1888 on, and where he produced as many as 200 canvases in just 15 months.

Partly because of his rural childhood, and in part because of his ministerial calling, his subjects had up until then been the humble peasants of the Belgian countryside and the poor citizens of Parisian hovels. Now under the brighter sky of Northern France he turned to portraits and still-life just as his fellow impressionists were doing.

Psychologists have often examined van Gogh’s masterpieces in order to understand his passion for certain colors especially for ochre which glows eerily in many of the Arles paintings. Van Gogh also thought that the colors red and green “expressed the passions of the soul.”

In Arles, yet another transformation was to take place in the direction of van Gogh’s work. This was hinted at in a letter he wrote to his brother in August 1888: “I have seen a magnificent and strange effect this afternoon. A very large boat laden with coal on the Rhone, tied up to the wharf. Seen from high above, it was all shining and damp from the squall; the water was yellowish white and cloudy pearl grey; the sky lilac with an orangey band in the west; the city violet, offloading the cargo. It was pure Hokusai.” (Hokusai was an influential Japanese printmaker.) In another note he explains to his brother, “The view changes, one sees with a more Japanese eye … the colors in a different light.”

Van Gogh’s rendition of this scene is entitled “Stevedores at Arles” and is now permanently installed at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. This painting, on loan, is featured prominently at the current MoMA exhibit, a small show of only 23 paintings and 10 works on paper covering the artist’s entire career.

Another of the show’s treasures is the painting “The Dance Hall in Arles.” The scene was painted during the time Paul Gauguin was staying with van Gogh and reflects Gauguin’s influence in the vibrancy of the brush strokes, the brashness of the design. We are also reminded of the dance hall pictures of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and the apparent Japanese influence in the treatment of the dancer’s hair. The diagonal direction of the picture plane presented here is repeated in a number of the Arles canvases.

In another letter van Gogh forecasts a new painting to Theo. “Today I am probably going to begin on the interior of the cafe where I have a room … It is what they call here a ‘cafe de nuit’ … they stay open all night. Night prowlers can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in.” In September 1888 van Gogh stayed up three nights to paint his “The Night Cafe” a haunting, glaring, disturbing painting. Vincent categorized it as “one of the ugliest I have ever done.” Yet such is its appeal that anyone interested in the paintings of the last 150 years would recognize it instantly. Repelled or attracted, the viewer can sympathize with the forlorn characters that inhabit the room with its enormous billiard table. The painting is one of the treasures of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut.

But perhaps the diamonds in the tiara of the MoMA show are two paintings created a year apart, in which Vincent van Gogh reaches the pinnacle of his craft. The earlier one is entitled “Starry Night over the Rhone” (1888). It is on loan from Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The later one is “The Starry Night” which resides permanently at MoMA. “But when shall I paint my starry sky,” Vincent wrote to Emile Bernard, a friend and fellow painter, “that picture that occupies me continuously? The most beautiful pictures are those one dreams about … but which one will never paint. One must attack them nevertheless, however incompetent one may feel before the unspeakable perfection, the glorious splendor of nature.”

According to astronomers the Rhone painting shows the stars in their more or less exact positions. There is a romantic emphasis here as the stars are mirrored in the river mingling with the lights of the houses along the shore. An elderly couple is pictured clearly. They seem immersed in their own world oblivious to what is taking place. But the viewer can attest to the ‘wholeness of the scene’ its brilliant coloration and the calm almost festive feeling the picture represents. We know that van Gogh painted this scene outdoors. His colors have a firm alert feeling: ochre, deep green and blue.

The “Starry Night” of the following year was painted in the asylum at St. Remy and is more reflective of van Gogh’s psychic makeup. The rolling, roiling quality of the sky is a clear indication of the turmoil in his thinking, his struggle with perception and his analysis of reality. Nevertheless he is able to picture the village of Saint-Remy. The cypress along the edge of the painting reminds us clearly of the burning bush in the Old Testament. Cypress trees were also typically planted in cemeteries in that region, and their riveting appearance on the canvas might have been van Gogh’s prediction of his own impending tragic demise.

What could Vincent van Gogh have accomplished had he lived a full life span? We cannot know, of course, we can only be grateful for van Gogh’s contributions during his all-too-brief 37 years.

Fred Stern is an art writer and poet based in New Jersey. His recent collection of poetry, Corridors of Light is available from Booklink.com and on the web.

I think my favourite 60 Minutes segment ever was the time, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, that they sent a liberal Russian journalist to interview the surviving members of the Moscow-based Institute of the Brain. The institute, as its name does not quite imply, was set up after Lenin’s death in 1924 for the purpose of analyzing just what it was about the great man’s brain that made him superior to other men. Lenin’s body, of course, was embalmed, and kept on public view in Red Square. But the brain they’d cut up into thousands of micro-thin slices, the better to perform various tests on it. Which they’d been doing ever since.

What made the piece work was, in part, how deadpan it was. The correspondent never cracked a smile as he interviewed these people who had spent their lives in such a sublimely pointless pursuit. But what really made it soar was the detail. I can tell you about the Institute for the Study of Lenin’s Brain. But unless you saw it close up–unless you watched those poor, lunatic pseudo-scientists describe their work, at length and with evident pride–you would not capture the full absurdity of it.

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I feel much the same way now, after two days spent in a downtown Vancouver courtroom watching the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal’s hearings into the case of Mohamed Elmasry et al. versus Mark Steyn and Maclean’s. I have tried to convey some of the sense of what I have seen in my posts to the magazine’s website. But I fear that unless you were actually in that tiny, suffocating room, you could not fully grasp just how utterly deranged the proceedings were.

You will perhaps be familiar with the case. It concerns an excerpt from Mark Steyn’s book, America Alone, published in Maclean’s a year and a half ago. You will recall that a group of students under Elmasry’s influence approached the magazine some months after publication, demanding it publish an article of equal length (5,000 words!), unedited, together with cover art of their choosing. I do not know of any magazine anywhere that has ever consented to such demands.

So instead we are in court–or rather, not court, but some mad parody of a court, whose contours seem to bend and stretch like some psychedelic vision circa Yellow Submarine. Things are not quite as bad in B.C. as in Ontario, where the province’s human rights commission felt able to issue a judgment without the cost and inconvenience of a hearing. But it’s a near thing.

Section 7.1 of the B.C. Human Rights Code prohibits “any statement, publication, notice, [etc.] that … is likely to expose a person or a group or class of persons to hatred or contempt.” Not that it actually exposes them to anything, note: just that it’s likely to. Nor does Section 7.1 make any allowance for the usual defences that apply where the law intrudes upon free speech rights. There is no defence of fair comment, for example, or of the public interest, or of good faith. Most notoriously, even truth is not a defence.

The “remedies” at the tribunal’s command are equally breathtaking. Should, I don’t know, a magazine be found to have contravened the code, the tribunal must, at a minimum, order that unnamed magazine to “cease the contravention“–ie. to stop publishing whatever sort of material it was that the tribunal deemed unpublishable. But the tribunal can also force it to publish something, or make it pay compensation to whoever launched the complaint against it.

But it’s in the actual process of hearing cases that the going gets truly weird. As was evident this week, it isn’t just that the tribunals have lower standards than regular courts when it comes to rules of evidence, protections for the accused and so on–it’s that they have no standards. Practices that would earn prosecutors a stern rebuke, if not summary dismissal, in any proper court–failure to disclose, hearsay, you know, all that Perry Mason stuff–were here the subject of furrowed brows and frequent huddles among the three panellists. They truly appeared to be making it up as they went along.

In consequence, our high-priced legal help, fine lawyers that they are, found themselves boxing with shadows: all but forbidden to mount a defence, raising objections to evidence without the first clue of what rules, if any, the tribunal would apply, plowing methodically through whatever odd bits of flotsam and jetsam the complainants could think to throw at them–not just their own subjective reactions to Steyn’s piece, but polls, blog posts, reports on Islamophobia in other countries, the works.

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Is it any wonder that I concluded, even before the hearing began, that our best strategy was to lose? Win the case, and all we do is legitimize the process. See, its defenders would argue–the system works, correctly distinguishing between an occasionally over-the-top polemicist like Steyn and a real, honest-to-God hate-monger. And so we would simply be teeing up the next complainant, and the next. For what they seek is not, as they pretend, the right of reply. Their purpose is rather to prevent the offending material from being published in the first place.

No, the only answer is to lose, and challenge the law on appeal, on constitutional grounds-and if that doesn’t work, to embarrass the politicians into repealing it. I’m guessing the tribunal can see the threat to their livelihoods if they convict Maclean’s, and will do all they can to acquit us. But I have every confidence our lawyers can outwit them.

ON THE WEB: For more Andrew Coyne, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/andrewcoyne

The very first Rob Gonsalves painting I saw was “The Sea and Ocean.” My eye was first drawn to a scuba diver in the top right. The scene was set as if I was looking up at her and I could see the flickering of the light in the sky through the top of the water. As I looked down and to my left, it merged into a beach scene with mountains. That same sky I saw through the water blended with the actual sky above the sandy beach. I realized he had created the viewer’s perspective of the water to be looking from underneath and on top all at the same time. I had never seen anything like it. I was completely enamored.

>>> click here: The Art of Desire

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Rob creates, as he likes to call it, surreal realism.

His painting is almost like a beautiful optical illusion. Each work of art flows between two scenes. Rob plays with perspective, color, and texture to trick the human eye.

Starting in one corner may be a library; students doing research surrounded by stacks and stacks of books. Then as your eyes move across the canvas, the shelves and books slowly turn into a cityscape.

At the bottom of one painting entitled, “The Phenomenon of Floating,” a girl is laying down in the grass, gazing up at the stars. As you look up at the night sky, it becomes a view of earth as if you were in outer space looking down while the world sleeps.

When I got to speak with Rob, he told me, “I actually started in architecture. I was always kind of an artist growing up, I just didn’t know it then, it’s not what I called myself.” As with most young artists, Rob received no encouragement or support from his family. They did not want him to become another starving artist, “Art was just something I did.”

“To appease my parents I decided to study architecture. I figured that would satisfy my artistic needs as well as go along with the life my parents wanted for me. However, I worked in architecture for five years and I just didn’t like it. I like more natural, I don’t like the modern architecture. I see a building all metal and square, I don’t like it, it’s not me. I like the classic old style architecture from the 20s and 30s that remind you of nature. I like tall skyscrapers tapering to a point like the shape of trees, stone buildings so you can still see the raw materials.”

It is very apparent a large use of his architectural knowledge is used in his work. He says most often he likes to go from some city scene and merge it into nature bringing it back, making into one.

In “Light Flurries” a beautiful twinkling New York skyline will then flow to a forest glowing at night; while a small boy goes for a hike.

Initially, a car is seen driving on a bridge in “Toward the Horizon.” Looking across, the bridge, towering over a body of water, manages to turn into a fleet of ships; giving a whole new meaning to driving off into the distance.

The actual painting part is a breeze compared to planning it out,” Rob Gonsalves says. First he needs to come up with an idea. When asked where his inspiration comes from, he could not give a definite answer. He said it comes from everything around him; nature, something he saw, other artists work may have inspired him, a scene in his life he experienced. He only makes about 3-4 paintings a year, “It’s not as easy as it seems,” Rob says. Planning could take months. Sometimes he will have an idea and spend weeks planning, just to realize it will not work. At that point he needs to decide to scrap the whole thing or to set it aside to look at another time. Sometimes paintings and ideas could be set aside for years! Rob will be in love with an idea but just cannot seem to make it happen. “Then all of a sudden, one day I just have it and I can see exactly how to make the transition.”

Entitled “A Riesling and Red Velvet Reception,” the launch event was held at Huckleberry Fine Arts Gallery in Maryland. On the eve of September 26, 2014 Rob Gonsalves introduced his latest painting to be seen for the first time. Fittingly wine and red velvet cupcakes were served as Rob discussed his latest work, “The Sea and Ocean.” Not only is Rob Gonsalves an awe inspiring artist but also his demeanor captures an audience and everything he says becomes entirely fascinating. His other works were on display and available for purchase.

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I found “Widow’s Walk II” to be particularly eerie. Starting from the left is a balcony over looking a sea at night. As your eyes move to the right, the space between the columns slowly turns into a ghost of a woman. The last is the most prominent standing next to a man unaware of her presents as he overlooks the sea is well.

Walking around I noticed, other of Rob’s paintings it is almost as if you could turn the painting upside down and have a completely different painting.

Some of Rob’s paintings you get the moment you see them. Then others almost take a second to realize where the transition happens, or that there is another scene entirely. Two people could look at the same painting and initially see two separate scenes. What drew them first? Was it the baker making wedding cakes? Or the scene fit for a musical of a man singing on a rooftop?

I believe this to be a signature of Rob Gonsalves’ art, one painting with the ability to contain a completely different view of the same work, just a different perspective.

Amy DeLaura is the Education Program Coordinator for the World & I Online. She wrote for her school newspaper Mace&Crown while attending Old Dominion University. Her passions are writing, art, food, and her cat.

I USED TO HATE FEMINISM and women’s only spaces. I internalized misogyny and sounded like Taylor Swift circa 2012 and Shailene Woodley circa now. I thought hard work and dedication would make me equal. I was complicit in circle jerk patriarchy systemically; I only fleetingly saw color, and I’m racialized. It wasn’t until entering my third year of university in Ontario that a sickening revelation hit me while hosting interviews for campus orientation leaders: I’d worked hard to be in a leadership position in the student union just to have the “prestige” of selecting which bros were best to welcome first years to campus.

Behind the scenes in student organizing the saying “boys will be boys” remains a staple mantra in apologizing for misogyny. The interviews boasted multiple steps of an application, including a creative component, oddly (and potentially illegally) a photo, and a multi-room interview. For the creative components, people submitted everything from cakes to collages, but what stuck out most were the videos. One audition video featured what I would now describe as a quintessential dudebro, reminiscent of the internal personalities and goals of many of the men on campus. He was wearing a towel, walking around his residence with girls fawning over him. The soundtrack was offensively cheesy, and so were the mediocre lines explaining he’d be a good fit because ladies, supposedly, “love him.” My fellow committee members seemed to agree. Their jovial tone, however, changed when we heard from female applicants. The comments disgusted me: each woman, without fail, was immediately reduced to sex appeal.

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A very basic notion finally dawned on me: all the feminists I didn’t understand had a valid point. University suddenly seemed like a patriarchal wasteland. I had no place to discuss or unpack my feelings. I suddenly felt like no matter how hard I worked, my campus was not necessarily a place for me. I broke down, desperately crying to a random counselor at my school’s health center. I didn’t know of a place on campus to process my feelings and feel safe–the counsellor felt like the closest place I could go to have an empathetic ear. It wasn’t just the objectification, which was gross, that bothered me. It was that it was so ingrained into the selection process, passed on like an heirloom. And, this process is not inherent to one campus; female embodiment on campuses has long been contested. Academia is not easily accessible, and it can seem even less so to women. Even when women find a place there, it’s not necessarily the best place–we can so easily become objects instead of people.

My experience at university is partially why I wasn’t shocked when, in September 2013, a chilling video surfaced online showing Halifax-based Saint Mary’s University’s frosh week chants. The chants centered on male students’ preference for non-consensual sex with underage girls. (“SMU boys we like them young … Y is for ‘your sister’, O is for ‘oh so tight’, U is for ‘underage’, N is for ‘no consent’, G is for ‘grab that ass’.”) The chants were not unique to Saint Mary’s: that same year University of British Columbia had an alarmingly similar chant. Then last year, McMaster University’s Engineering Society (MES) faced similar scrutiny after a book of chants resurfaced, ridden with references to child abuse, raping drunk women, plus physical, and sexual torture–amongst other inconceivably appalling acts. It was created by “student leaders.” The MES welcomes and mentors first year engineering students; it is an already predominantly male program. My own first year at university, kinesiology students were told by older student leaders to partner with someone of the opposite gender to play an “anatomy game.” This is degrading and unnecessary when bridging a transition from high school to post-secondary school; it blurs the lines of consent when we really can’t afford to have them blurred any further.

Recently, for instance, fourth year graduate-level students at Dalhousie’s dentistry school sparked both outrage and controversy with the creation of a misogynistic Facebook group where frequent sexually explicit posts were made about female peers. The group of male students, nauseatingly named the gentleman’s club, suggested non-consensual “hate” sex with peers and sex while women were unconscious. Thirteen of the dentistry students have been suspended but only after students, members of the public, and faculty, including four professors, formally filed official complaints with the school. Currently, one of the members is publicly fighting his expulsion for having exposed the group.

This is why we need more women’s centres on university campuses. Women’s centres have very specific mandates to support individuals facing gender violence, including everything from self-defense workshops to escorting women to abortion clinic appointments. University of British Columbia’s women’s centre, for example, has been cultivating that safer space for 40 years. The actual physical space of a women’s centre, plus its wide range of programming and support is invaluable, says Alexis Wolfe, president of UBC’s centre. Even so, centres can face opposition, especially with so-called men’s rights groups such as A Voice for Men and Canadian Association For Equity popping up throughout Canada.

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Any school that faces opposition to having a women’s centre on campus is a school that likely needs this space more than anyone,” says Wolfe. “Individuals facing gender-based violence and oppression are already so alienated in many of the aspects of campus life and the university experience and denying them a place to seek solidarity and resources to keep themselves safe and informed is an act of violence in itself.”

When I tell people that there is opposition to women’s centers on campuses–not only from self-proclaimed meninists, but also from student leaders and a growing number of women–most are in disbelief. Perhaps I live in feminist echo chamber, but I really fear the opposition is persevering in its stance that these centres do not hold value. As former “space allocation chair” of my school’s constantly name-changing (to pander to patriarchal thinking) Women and Gender Equity Network, I can attest to the daunting task of creating a centre. In our case, we lost the battle for a physical space and so became a network, not a centre with dedicated funds. Today, my alma mater has a student union that funds an anti-choice group on campus and has approved another $95,000 for an ice rink–both things that make it, as Wolfe says, conceivably, a place where a centre is needed most.

NASHWA KHAN is currently living and learning in the Greater Toronto Area. She is an avid storyteller, and lover of narrative medicine and public health education. Feel free to tweet her @nashwakay or find her at nashwakhan.wordpress.com and https://thefeministburrito.wordpress.com.

J.B. Cheaney is the author of The Playmaker and The True Prince. Her third novel, Hazel Anderson’s War, will be published in late 2004.

Tracy Chevalier returns with a novel centered on the weaving of the unicorn tapestries.

THE LADY AND THE UNICORN

Tracy Chevalier

New York: E.P. Dutton, 2003

256 pp., $23.95

In The Lady and the Unicorn, novelist Tracy Chevalier returns to the device that made her widely acclaimed Girl With a Pearl Earring a striking success: a cross-pollination of visual and literary art. Again she leads us by the hand into the production of a masterpiece, taking apart the colors, textures, and composition and reconstructing them into a portrait of longing.

Girl With a Pearl Earring imagines the story of Griet, a craftsman’s daughter of seventeenth-century Delft. When her father is blinded and family fortunes dwindle, Griet enters the household of Jan Vermeer as a maid. There she catches the painter’s attention and eventually becomes the model for one of Vermeer’s best-known works. The novel is as quiet, on the surface, as the painting. What makes it work is the same understated tension that makes the portrait glow.

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The Lady and the Unicorn also tells the story behind a masterpiece: the tapestry of the title, or rather a set of tapestries commissioned to deck the grand salon of a wealthy man’s house. The actual tapestries, now displayed in Paris’ Musee National du Moyen Age, can be traced to the family of Jean Le Viste, who rose to prominence in fifteenth-century France. Their construction is imagined by the author, who pushes aside the exquisitely woven surface to examine the untidy lives beneath.

Weaving the six tapestries

Tapestry making of the period was a group project; since many hands went into the finished product, many voices contribute to the narrative. The plot shuttles between two families in two cities. First, Paris, where the society painter Nicolas des Innocents is chosen to design and paint preliminary studies. His patron Le Viste wants a glorified depiction of the Battle of Nancy, as a way to ingratiate himself further at court and suggest his influence on the king. Le Viste’s wife, Genevieve, has another theme in mind, which her husband (with suspicious ease) is persuaded to adopt. From that point on, the men drive the work but the women inspire and indwell it.

It’s a momentous time for Europe: France only recently united under the “Spider King” Louis XI; the Tudor dynasty established in England; Castile and Arragon joined to form modern Spain. Christopher Columbus is seeking a financier for his bold plan for reaching the Indies, and movable type is creating the world’s first literate generation. None of these events disturb the narrative; it’s a story of interior walls and enclosed gardens, feminine to the core.

Lady Genevieve’s proposal for the tapestries is “The Seduction of the Unicorn,” portrayed in six stages. Seduction is in the air; her fourteen-year-old daughter Claude is a ripening plum all too ready to fall into the hands of the handsome painter. Nicolas is a shameless womanizer but with an artist’s sensitivity–it turns out that Genevieve herself has chosen him for the design work because, to her at least, his portraits of women capture “their spiritual nature.” Capitalizing on her insight, Nicolas decides that the tapestries will be about “the whole of a woman’s life, its beginning and end. All of her choices, all in one, wound together. That is what I would do.” Genevieve and Claude present two sides of womanhood to him, the spiritual and the sensual.

In Brussels, a center of medieval tapestry weaving, Nicolas finds a craftsman capable of executing his designs. Though the pay offered by Le Viste is barely adequate and the time allotment is too tight for comfort, Georges de la Chapelle is encouraged by his wife. Christine, to take the job: “It will be the making of you.” Philippe de la Tour, a painter and draftsman, is hired to enlarge the designs for weaving. Countless details go into the project, even before the actual work begins: contracting with dyers and wool spinners, laying in a supply of thread and ensuring that the dye lots remain consistent, hiring extra craftsmen to weave a fashionable millefleur background of flowers and animals. As Christine and her daughter Alienor keep the household running and participate in the preliminary work, Nicolas begins to appreciate them as two more sides to womanhood: the practical wife and the vulnerable virgin. They also will find a place in his design.

The “Seduction,” as presented in the tapestries, begins with a panel titled Mon Seul Desir (“my one desire“) and proceeds through the five senses. All four women will find themselves idealized on the canvas, but in life they are portraits of frustrated desire. Genevieve longs to escape her unhappy marriage and difficult child by entering a convent. High-spirited Claude aches, as she artlessly puts it, “for an answer to my body’s question” and resents the value put on her virginity by the marriage market. Christine, a weaver’s daughter and wife, chafes at guild rules that keep her from becoming a weaver herself. Alienor desires nothing more than to stay where she is, tending her garden and making herself useful, but circumstances are forcing her toward marriage with a man she detests.

It’s a man’s world, but the men don’t fare much better. Nicolas feeds his lusts but starves his soul, Georges’ ambition clashes with his security, Philippe is so shy he can’t even reach for modest dreams, and Le Viste, though rich and powerful, is cold and shallow. All expect to gain in reputation or prestige from the project, but only Le Viste gets exactly what he paid for: a set of six tapestries. The others receive both more and less, an ambivalence personified in Nicolas. By the end of the story he recognizes himself as the unicorn, thoroughly seduced by daughters and mothers, lovers and wives: The ladies “were all of them beautiful, peaceful, content. To stand among them was to be part of their magical, blessed lives.” They are his creation but also his snare.

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Match of story and device

The peculiar grace of this story is the way it is told. One of the greatest challenges for a historical novelist is revealing period detail; with a less skillful writer, one frequently hears the clunk of textbook prose dropped into the narrative. The literal ins and outs of tapestry production make Chevalier’s job even more difficult, for it involves mechanics and techniques that have all but disappeared. Even modern weaving is not easily explained without diagrams. Chevalier succeeds not merely in explaining the process but in working it into the warp and weft of her story. Weaving metaphors abound: the complex business of gathering, dyeing, and evaluating thread perfectly represents the disparate details that make up the fabric of life. Christine describes how warp threads are strung on the loom by reflecting, “I think of them as like wives. Their work is not obvious. All you can see are the ridges they make under the colorful weft threads. But if they weren’t there, there would be no tapestry. Georges would unravel without me.”

Chevalier makes striking use of the practice of weaving tapestries from the back, so that their harmony of color and design can’t be appreciated until the finished work is cut off the loom and turned over. In just that way, we observe the knots and splices of individual characters feeding into the production but don’t see the product until it’s trimmed and hemmed and hanging in the house of Jean Le Viste. Then for a moment we become museum curators of history, seeing the tapestry of the past as a seamless work rather than a disjointed process. The conflicts of desire and duty, spirit and flesh–and particularly men and women–are woven into a work of art, giving it life but hiding the loose ends. The match of story and device is flawless.

But the novel’s greatest strength is also a weakness. Employing so many voices in such a slim volume, Chevalier can’t give much depth to any of them. Instead of one strong and consistent point of view, we get several. The overall effect is curiously flat, with the same lack of depth perception typical of medieval artwork. The texture is rich in detail, but somehow the details don’t add up to as much as they promise.

This is a flaw that could have been overcome, perhaps, with a strong central conflict. Most of the dramatic tension stems from individual conflicts between mother and daughter, husband and wife, man and maid. These are enough to keep the story moving but not enough to compel it. The sense of “narrative imperative,” of a strong undercurrent that catches up the individual conflicts and carries them to a conclusion, is lacking. The main engine of the plot turns out to be Jean Le Viste’s demand to have the tapestries completed by Candlemas, so he can use them as backdrop for a sumptuous banquet celebrating a major court appointment.

Great art is often driven by prosaic concerns, such as Shakespeare’s desire to pack the Globe and Mozart’s tossing out musical masterpieces to keep one step ahead of his creditors. That may even be the author’s point. But as a nerve center for a novel, it falls short. The disparate stories converge, ultimately, in a static pattern. We’re fascinated by the details, the layering, the nuts and bolts of construction, but the finished product is not likely to hold us for long. Like the serene face of the idealized medieval lady, it shuts us out. We are not quite seduced, after all. “I thought I had been very clever,” Nicolas confesses at the end, “but my cleverness had tripped me up.”

It may be too much to say that the novelist’s cleverness has tripped her up, because The Lady and the Unicorn succeeds as historical fiction, character study, and good old-fashioned storytelling. But probably not as an enduring work of art, unlike the tapestries it celebrates.

Cheaney, J. B.

 –> View more: Lucent Dreams: The Art Of Sanford R. Gifford

Judith Bell is an art historian and writer based in Arlington, Virginia.

A leader of the second generation of Hudson River School artists, Luminist Sanford R. Gifford created painting not so much of scenery as of atmosphere.

“Atmosphere,” wrote Asher B. Durand, who along with Thomas Cole constituted the first generation of nineteenth-century American landscape painters, “is felt in the foreground, seen beyond that, and palpable in the distance. It spreads over all objects the color which it receives from the sky in sunlight or cloudlight.”

Judith-Bell

More than any other American painter of his generation, Sanford Robinson Gifford fulfilled Durand’s directive of atmosphere made palpable. Evocative rather than descriptive, poetic rather than literal, his works capture the ephemeral quality of observing the beauty of the natural world.

One hundred twenty-three years ago, Gifford was the subject of the first monographic exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s history. Now he is reexamined in Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford, a major retrospective co-organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art. The seventy paintings reflect on the artist’s travels in America, Europe, and the Middle East and his undisputed mastery of light and shadow.

Gifford was the only one among the Hudson River School artists who was born and raised in the center of the Hudson River Valley, an experience that laid his artistic foundations. Born in Hudson in 1823 to Elihu and Eliza Starbuck Gifford, he was the fourth of eleven children. That same year his father bought a partnership in an iron foundry, becoming sole proprietor in 1831. His father’s subsequent commercial success and prosperity, coupled with a sense of indulgence and generosity in the home, meant that Gifford and his siblings were encouraged to pursue their own directions in life.

Gifford studied at Brown University in 1841-43, the only Hudson River artist to attend college. After dropping out, he struggled to persuade his father to let him study art. An early influence in this choice of vocation was the arrival in Hudson in 1844 of portraitist and landscape painter Henry Ary. The family was intimately acquainted with Ary’s work. Sanford’s older brother Frederick commissioned portraits of himself and his wife from Ary and purchased one of the artist’s landscapes depicting Mount Merino, a Hudson landmark. Gifford and Ary sketched together in the Catskills. The fact that Ary was a recognized success and Gifford’s father was familiar with the established artist’s work helped strengthen Gifford’s argument.

Once Gifford’s father acquiesced, the family’s wealth left him free to pursue his artistic vision without concerning himself with popular tastes or the need to churn out art for the express purpose of sale. He moved to New York City in 1845 to study with John Rubens Smith, a drawing master who taught anatomy, perspective, and drawing. He supplemented his education by drawing casts at the nearby National Academy of Design and attending anatomy lectures at Crosby Street Medical College.

Gifford first focused his artistic efforts on portrait painting, a choice that quickly proved to be an ill fit for his quiet, withdrawn nature. By 1846 he turned his attention to landscape. “During the summer,” he later said, “I made several pedestrian tours in the Catskill Mountains, and together with the great admiration I felt for the works of Cole, developed a strong interest in landscape art, and opened my eyes to a keener perception and more intelligent enjoyment of nature. Having once enjoyed the absolute freedom of the landscape artist’s life, I was unable to return to portrait painting. From this time my direction in art was determined.”

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Cole’s accomplishment and influence were momentous. Traditionally, painters were told if they wanted to paint landscapes they should go to Europe and paint in the classical tradition. Cole changed the American sensibility concerning the genre, enabling Americans for the first time to take pride in their native wilds as a basis for art.

Cole’s fame had ascended along with the rise of the Romantic movement, which had at its core the belief in the aesthetic value and transcendental attributes of nature. The Catskills, with their combination of beauty, grandeur, and accessibility to New York City, the country’s largest and wealthiest metropolis, became the leading motif in the American Romantic movement.

“By the 1840s a number of young artists were looking seriously at landscape,” says Kevin Avery, cocurator of the exhibition and associate curator of the Department of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Cole and Durand were now senior artists and landscape garnered more and more attention as the phenomenon of the mobile, affluent, vacationing American first emerged in the midnineteenth century. Many of the landscapes of this period focus on areas like the Hudson River Valley that drew vacationers, and responded to early travelers’ desire for souvenirs of the places they had visited. The mood in Gifford’s work of experiencing the beauty of the natural world at a veiled remove from the world of lower concerns parallels this mid-nineteenth century occupation of escaping the world-weary everyday of city life.” Travel writer George Curtis, with whom Gifford was acquainted, described the travelers who flocked to these natural resorts as Lotus-Eaters, a title borrowed from Tennyson’s poem of the same name. “This referred to The Odyssey,” explains Avery. “Oedipus and his men were attracted to the land of the lotus-eaters where upon consuming this special flower they fell into a dream. That dreaminess of the landscape experience became a dominant part of Gifford’s esthetic.”

Developing an Aesthetic

Gifford spent the summer of 1846 touring and sketching in the Catskills and the Berkshire Mountains. By 1847 he had begun to show his work at the American Art-Union and the National Academy of Design.

The following year Gifford saw the largest exhibition of Cole’s work ever assembled in the memorial exhibition held at the American Art- Union. On view were the straightforward landscape studies as well as Cole’s more ambitious allegorical landscapes that made grandiose historical associations. While he was probably encouraged by Cole’s thorough mining of the American landscape for subject matter, artist and Gifford friend Thomas Worthington Whittredge noted that Gifford said “in general terms that no historical or legendary interest attached to the landscape could help the landscape painter … The dead, the ruined, the weak, did not interest him.”

Gifford worked quietly, without drawing much attention until the National Academy exhibition of 1852. A critic writing in The Literary World observed that “Gifford’s feeling for the higher quality of landscape, space, light, and refinement of form are more than indicated in his present works, and when he shall have overcome some feebleness of execution, … he will express himself with greater decision and correctness. … We have no young artist more sincere in his feeling or less corrupted by erroneous ideas.”

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In May 1855, Gifford made his first trip to Europe, where he would stay for two years. He visited the major repositories of art and sketched scenery in England, Scotland, France, the Low Countries, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. The letters he wrote his family during his travels provide the most comprehensive information of any period in his career.

Staying in London, he visited the National Gallery, the Royal Academy of Arts, the Society of Painters of Watercolors, and other private and public collections. During this period, he studied not only the work of old masters but also that of more recent active artists such as J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837).

He was familiar with Turner’s work from prints of the artist’s work that hung in his family’s Hudson home and from the writings of English art critic John Ruskin. At first calling Turner’s handling of paint “shamelessly careless,” he gradually came around to appreciating his unique mastery of the symbiotic relationship of color and light that foreshadowed Impressionism. Gifford recorded his thoughts in a note to The Crayon:

“Here I at last saw something of that magnificent light and color which Ruskin claims for his favorite master, and which I must say fully warrants his eloquent eulogies. “The Grand Canal” [sic] I take to be a good example of the best character of Turner’s later style. To give it fair play, it should be looked at from a little distance, and free rein given to the imagination. The whole picture is very light, and the effect gay and brilliant. It is indeed splendid in its bright mid-day sunlight, and in the gorgeous procession of the barges that advances down the canal; there is a varied brilliancy of color I have never seen equaled. In the forms there is great infinity as well as indefiniteness. “

Gifford had the opportunity to meet with Ruskin, where he discussed his misgivings about Turner’s “liberties.” Ruskin responded that Turner “treated his subject as a poet, and not as a topographer; that he painted the impression the scene made upon his mind, rather than literal scenes.”

Although Gifford’s technique continued to differ from Turner’s, this became the course he followed as he developed his own mature style of painting. By 1857, he was fully in stride with this personal direction. That winter in Rome, he made what would be the largest painting of his career. Located in an extinct volcanic crater seventeen miles southeast of Rome, Lake Nemi was a common subject and one painted by both Cole and Turner. Gifford knew these works and adopted the latter’s point of view for his interpretation. In Lake Nethe haze obscuring the late afternoon sun is palpable. The setting sun as focal point–a Gifford hallmark that appears here for the first time–casts a warm light over the hillside and valley, rendering even the water in the lake a blue infused with gold.

With Lake Nemi’s 1858 exhibition at the National Academy of Design, Gifford emerged as a leader of the second generation of Hudson River School painters. The following year he showed his first masterwork of American scenery, Mansfield Mountain, first at the National Academy and then at the Boston Athenaeum. One critic wrote:

“Those who can’t get away from business to see nature among the mountains or by the sea, cannot do better than to visit the Athenaeum gallery and behold nature in art … Among those which are new, are several by Gifford, the most poetical of our American artists, whose pictures are like poet’s dreams. His paintings have a light shade and coloring peculiar to themselves, and they are his children bearing the impress of his genius. There is a soul beauty about them. “

With his return to New York, he set up his studio in the new Tenth Street Studio Building, where such other Hudson River School artists as Frederic Church, Thomas Worthington Whittredge, and Albert Bierstadt worked. Whittredge described how Gifford would disappear from his studio and then reappear months or years later; most summers Gifford sketched in the countryside, returning to his favorite settings in the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains in Vermont, and locales in Maine and Nova Scotia.

Gifford’s fascination with the transfiguring effects of light was ongoing. The 1862 painting Gorge in the Mountains depicts Kaaterskill Clove, a Catskills gorge and favorite subject of Cole’s. While Cole historicized and loaded his paintings with allegorical meaning, Gifford’s expression retains a purity and immediacy that is more about the experience of nature than its symbolic significance. He chose subjects that made appropriate containers for light-filled air and then modified the views to accentuate this quality. In Mansfield Mountain (1859), the mountains rise up on either side of the view, embracing the color-infused atmosphere. In Hunter Mountain, Twilight (1866), Gifford changed the image recorded in his preliminary sketch to create a more pleasing receptacle for light. In the painting he moved the depression in the setting to the center of the composition to more completely complement the ascending curve of the mountain in the background. He considered his view of the ruins of the Parthenon “not a picture of a building but a picture of a day” and emptied the foreground of existing debris, emphasizing instead the horizontal sweep of the distant bay and the mountains. “The really important matter is not the natural object itself,” wrote Gifford, “but the veil or medium through which we see it.”

“Gifford was trying to find a metaphor not for landscape itself but for the effect of contemplating the landscape, the pleasure gleaned from the experience,” says Avery. “This is palpable in the atmosphere he created with such astounding success in his work.”

Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; is at the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, March 6–May 16; and goes to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., June 27–September 26.

Bell, Judith

 

–> See also article: Cambodias Freedom Artist

HER STUDIO is the stillest place. Vermeer might have painted it. On her table and on her easel-competing evenly for the greater claim to realness-are three eggs and one blown-glass vase. Pastel is a frail and brutal medium. Gorgeous dust rises all day.

She will puff it aside with her turkey-baster thing. When blocking out wide swatches of color she has to wear a mask. Stroke and blend, stroke and blend: lines so infinitesimal they make this comma, here, seem flourishsize. Drawn always left to right: rightside, you see, she must allow room for the maulstick on which her drawing hand rests. It may take more than a year to complete this still life. After some while, on any given day, her neck stiffens, Then her back. She has to wear glasses now. Her name is Jane Lund. And she has become, to be modest about it, America’s finest pastel artist.

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I have known Jane Lund since, oh, birth. Her mother and my mother remain best friends after more than half a century. Jane, come summer, would visit our upstate mountain cabin. She had the habit of roping me into unsound business ventures: handyman service, wash delivery, even a publishing enterprise that sold home-made pulp fiction from my Janesville wagon. Jane was somewhat older than I and more mature anyhow, in the way of female children: her eccentric, bright mind propagated strange waves that still influence my thought. Even then Jane had a feverish, immediate vision that could disable reality by making it bear too much weight. Grotesque, extreme events possessed her. Every summer, after Jane left us, I slept with a night light until autumn. Yet today our artistic sensibilities are remarkably similar. And, though I was no doubt inclined by nature to this preoccupation with what is overwrought and sensuous, Jane taught me (as no adult could have) that such a fierce bent did not disqualify one from human fellowship. We have spent a lifetime, each of us, shocking our parents.

I recall an afternoon: I was 22 or so and hadn’t seen Jane in some years. I gave her a rough-draft chapter of my first novel to look through. Back then Jane was producing idiosyncratic, wild acrylic art that incorporated, among other things, human teeth. She put the manuscript down and said, “Gee. Wouldn’t it be swell if you could sell a novel and I could sell a painting?” Ah, the lost, sweet innocence of that moment. I could weep. It happened in time. Though, to be frank, her pastels now sell for more than any novel of mine ever has.

Jane was a technical illustrator at that time. Soon afterward, on the casual suggestion of some friend, she took up pastels. “Basically I’m a draftsman,” Jane said in her New England backyard. “Pastels lent themselves to my ability. In effect it was like drawing with color.

And what drawing. For half of one decade-her “moon” periodJane drew sexual, ceremonial, doomstruck hallucinations that were to the moon as menstruation is. All perpetrated in a silence deeper than any I have seen. It was subject matter, she told me, taken from real dreams: and it starred Jane, of course, her family, and her hyperbolic subconscious. Jane’s face, by good fortune, is uncommonly useful, even iconic-severe, withdrawn in stillness: clownish and cartoonlike when in animation. “I use my face as a still-life object.” And her face gazed out from surreal imagery that would intimate, if it didn’t fulfill (almost all her scenes happen just before a terrible choice), some household dread. I could sense Henri Rousseau in this. “Yes, I really loved him at a time. But you know what has been a big influence: Little Lulu comics. A certain clarity in those pictures really interested me.” Little Lulu the midnight shamaness, that one.

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Her “moon”-period pastels (and lithograph work) solicited some incriminating complicity from a viewer: for that reason they were often painful to accept. But by the late 1970s, Jane had taken still life under advisement. Her technique was now virtuosic. And she generated works so spectacular, so palpable and mute, that no viewer could disengage himself without consequence. A Lund still life has the poise and reach of great landscape. And for all their encyclopedic factuality, her still lifes have been imbued as well, somehow, with “moon”period dream pressure. They are-if this is possible-too real for realism: her intensity of vision redefines seeing. “When I make a pear-it isn’t like I’m trying to make a pear look like me-but sometimes I feel as if contours of my body were expressed in my work.” No other pastelist has ever had such ambition and the adroitness to accomplish it. In an old subgenre she has made new art.

Not without appreciable cost. “I can’t keep doing this. It’s too hard. I have to prepare for my old age.” One recent self-portrait (now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) took 22 months. To improve both vigor and morale, Jane re-examined what had been her “recreational” art form: watercolor. Using a flat, yet three-dimensional, construction technique (which may derive from another childhood fancy-the jump-up book), she created and boxed “little psychological scenes from people’s lives” under glass. Wit and surprise are elemental here. The watercolor constructions renounce scientific perspective: it is as if Giotto were drawing Smokey Stover. Though complex and often eerie, they are lighthearted in comparison with work from her “moon” period. Their power depends on their relaxation. For the first time-it is a sign of her maturityJane felt free to entertain.

But, by my lights, writing about art (or music) is misapplied force: like a screw hammered in. Direct experience is essential. From September 17 onward a rare, comprehensive exhibition of Jane Lund’s work-past and present-will run at the Forum Gallery in New York. Attend, if you can. It will refurbish your vision.

 

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